Military Notes: Demand for women in regiment unmonstrous

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The Independent Culture
THE "SHOULD she, shouldn't she be allowed to kill?" debate is making the rounds again . . . as in, "Should women be allowed to serve as front-line soldiers?" Apologists point out that women already serve at sea with the Royal Navy, fly fighter aircraft with the RAF and performed pretty damn well in SOE during the last war. So, given that the killer spirit is as strong as with a man, why not? Is the British army really the last outpost of all forms of discrimination?

There are more people demanding women be allowed to join the infantry than actually want to. But the principle - a woman is entitled to do anything a man does - is powerful and difficult to gainsay.

There is, in theory, absolutely no reason why women shouldn't join the infantry. As long as the woman can do exactly the same job as the man. As long as she's prepared to be treated in exactly the same way. As long as her presence won't be disruptive. All the criteria, in fact, that are applied to men themselves.

Israel is the country inevitably quoted as having seen the non-discriminatory light. But Israel withdrew women from front-line operations years ago. Bitter experience showed that, when a woman was injured, even the most avid kibbutznik would immediately tend to her. Her death or capture and rape by the enemy had a devastating effect on morale. This might be all very reprehensible, even backward, but, short of lobotomising all male soldiers, there's not much to be done about it.

Women do serve "on the front line" with the British army, have done for several years. 14 Intelligence Company, the special forces surveillance unit, and arguably the best of its kind in the world, has used women for the past 15 years. Not just because a seemingly married couple will attract less attention than two men when following a terrorist around Tesco's. But because women do bring certain strengths and skills to the job. They are more patient and painstaking, naturally observant and extremely imaginative.

True, women did perform brilliantly in SOE, have proved to be excellent pilots. But all these jobs were and are extremely specialised, often meant women working on their own or with only a very few male colleagues . . . and at a fairly senior level. The paradox is that, while women are more than suited for some special forces work, their role as potential infanteers has to be more problematic. "What everyone forgets," said a general, "is that infantry work can be pretty bloody low-tech and savage. It's not all killing at long range. Sometimes the bayonets have to come out."

Another point in their favour is woman's civilising effect on men. The evidence does suggest that women will, for whatever deep- seated reason or natural ability, bring out the best in their menfolk. Not just the nesting instinct, but a different way of looking at the world. Different sensibilities and often a subtler sense of humour. Isn't there a place for that in the Armed Forces? Except you do not want the necessary and controlled savagery, without which no battle is won, diluted in any way.

As for the woman who wants to serve her country and is genuinely attracted to the infantry role? Who does possess the necessary strength and stamina, can do the job, who lacks modesty and is capable of controlling every kind of male relationship, no problem? Is she really doomed to a second best career as a politician? Probably. At the moment there simply aren't enough women like that to warrant changing the rules. Even if there were, you'd have to form a special regiment. For the problem, as every woman knows, lies not so much with them as with men.

And that's never going to change. Whatever Hollywood says.

Nigel Foster is the author of `The Making af a Royal Marine Commando' (Pan Macmillan, pounds 5.99)

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